Starting a Virtual Team


It is relatively easy to lead a project whose contributors are all participating from different locations (virtual). In addition to the usual team and project leadership practices, you need only follow a few simple additional guidelines for your project to be successful. This page lists the steps you should take to launch the project and manage your virtual team throughout the life of your project. It is based on proven techniques that work for most types of teams. Here are the steps:

Form your team

The first step in starting up a virtual project team is for you to get familiar with each contributor and introduce them to each other. This assumes, of course, that not everyone knows each other already. The typical steps are:

  • Meet one-on-one—Meet with each team member by phone or in person to welcome them to the team, outline their roles, and establish working guidelines and expectations. This is also a very good time to learn more about them, what they like to do, their ideal working relationship, etc.
  • Hold a team kickoff meeting—For your first meeting as a team, introduce the team members to each other using personal introduction slides as a way to standardize and control the process.

Launch your project

After you have met with the team for introductions and to discuss the project at at a high level, you’ll need to schedule the project kickoff. This is an intense workshop where the core of the project plans, work breakdown structure and deliverables are determined. Obviously, the exact details of this process will vary depending on project needs, but the basics are the same:

  • Create the Project Data Sheet—The PDS is a high-level document, one page only, that outlines the purpose of the project, the resources (people, money and time) that are required, the major product or service features and the schedule risks. Checkout out our example PDS in the templates page.
  • Create a Work Breakdown Schedule—A WBS is the detailed, structured list of what needs to be done and by whom. Generally a spreadsheet is good enough. Try not to fall into the trap of creating a detailed Gannt chart at this point in the project as many details are likely to change.
  • Create a high-level schedule—From the WBS, create a rough timeline for the project, noting any critical dependencies. Generally, a simple schedule drawn in presentation program such as Microsoft PowerPoint or a very limited Microsoft Project schedule is sufficient. Again, try to avoid building a detailed Gannt project schedule.
  • Determine logistics and expectations for the team—This includes:
    • e-mail and instant messaging protocols and etiquette
    • desktop sharing and electronic whiteboard tools
    • file sharing repositories
    • phone and voicemail expectations
    • project communications plans, including who gets informed of what and when
    • project meeting schedules and ground-rules

    All of this work can be done very effectively using an on-line whiteboard or desktop sharing tool. The best results will be obtained if everyone contributes to the development of these documents in real-time.

Ongoing leadership

Throughout the project, frequent interactions with each team member is critical. This is especially true for virtual teams as the natural interactions you get from lunch chats, informal walk-ups, and MBWA are harder to do virtually.

  • Hold regular project reviews—Periodic project reviews are critical for the project sponsors and stakeholders. Everyone who has a part in the lifecycle of the project must be kept informed of progress, slips, problems and successes. The frequency is determined by the length or urgency of the project. The shorter or more critical the project, the more frequent the reviews.
  • Schedule a face-to-face—At some point into the project, early if possible, it is generally a good idea to have a face-to-face meeting with your entire team for some teambuilding time. Relationships and trust are built the fastest and strongest when we interact in person.
  • Celebrate successes and milestones—Throughout the project it is vital to celebrate minor and major successes appropriately. Read the page on virtual celebrations for ideas on how to have fun virtually. Be sure to celebrate the end of the project with an event commensurate with the size of the project.

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